Documenting the “Monster from the Skies”: Photographs Telling the Story of the 1953 Waco Tornado

By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator

"Monster From The Skies," Waco Tornado, May 1953
“It was so wide and the rain so heavy, it was impossible for anyone in the city to see the funnel approaching.” The cover of this publication demonstrates how T.E. Caldwell of Thornton, Texas, remembers how this storm on May 11, 1953 looked.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the May 11, 1953, tornado that hit Waco, Texas, causing the deaths of 114 people. To honor those who lost their lives on this tragic day, and the great loss of a large part of Waco’s central business district, we have put on our Flickr page some unseen or seldom seen photographs of the affected areas of Waco, before and after this storm.

This group of images includes digitized 35mm, 4×5 and 8×10 photograph negatives, Kodachrome slides, stereo-slides, and printed photos, and features images captured by Waco photographers such as Hiram Blaine Sherrill, Randall W. Todd, Fred Marlar, and the Army Air Force Photography Division. We also included “before” photos, giving us a sense of what these stricken parts of Waco were like before the catastrophic storm.

Before and After: The Devastation of the 1953 Waco Tornado
The top image, taken by Fred Marlar in about 1951, contrasts with the image below taken by Jimmie Willis of the same vicinity after the 1953 tornado.

Fred Gildersleeve, a well-known Waco photographer, also documented the storm’s wreckage. In a 1977 oral history interview, Waco historian Roger Conger remarked of Gildersleeve that “…Waco was most fortunate in having him here because he rode the crest of Waco’s remarkable development during the first twenty-five or thirty years of this century.” But sadly, just a few years prior to his death in 1958, he also saw the destruction of part of the city he had made a living photographing. He likely lost friends in the tragedy. However, like his earlier work, his documentation of the aftermath of the 1953 Waco Tornado helps to record an important part of the city’s history.

Before and After the Tornado, South Side of Waco, Texas, City Square, 1953 Waco Tornado
Before (1950) and after (1953) the tornado, south side of Waco, Texas, city square, by Fred Gildersleeve

Another photographer whose work is being brought to light is Dr. Hannibal “Joe” Jaworski. He resided in the nearby Roosevelt Hotel (400 Austin Avenue) and had a medical practice on the third floor of the Amicable (ALICO) Building, on the corner of 5th and Austin. In the aftermath of the storm, he led medical care of the wounded at Waco’s Hillcrest Hospital. Jaworski previously served as a colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corp, and so his experience earned during WWII made his contribution vital in helping those injured in this catastrophic natural disaster.

First Responders to the 1953 Waco Tornado (2)
The collapse of the Padgitt’s and RT Dennis buildings onto 5th Street, by Hannibal “Joe” Jaworski

When going to some of these hard-hit areas now, all that remains are some empty lots and historical markers. However, there is nothing like a photograph taken during this time or just before to help us realize why this event was sometimes referred to as the “Monster from the Skies.”

Check out more before and after images of the 1953 Waco tornado in our Flickr slideshow. Click the arrow to make the slideshow start, and click the crosshairs in the bottom right corner to make the slideshow full-screen.

Discover more about the 1953 Waco tornado…

Research Ready: January 2013

Each month, we post a processing update to notify our readers about the latest collections that have finding aids online and are primed for research. As we did in December, we have a few special entries from the Archival Collections and Museums class that worked on an archival processing project with us here at The Texas Collection. (Read more about that project from a student’s perspective.) Here’s the scoop for January:

Simons-Stoner-Rose Family Papers
During the Civil War George F. Simons served in the Confederate army Company K, 2nd Texas Infantry Regiment, and participated in the Battle of Shiloh. He received this certificate of parole in 1865, which can be found in the Simons-Stoner-Rose Family Papers.
    • Bertie Routh Barron Papers, 1897-1972, undated: These papers contain correspondence, financial documents, literary productions and photographic materials pertaining to Barron’s life, particularly the time she spent at Baylor Female College.
    • De Cordova Family Papers, 1845-1956: The chronology of the collection ranges from 1845 to 1956, but the bulk of the materials originated from 1845 to 1863 when Jacob de Cordova was most active as a land agent in Texas. Most materials are correspondence or legal documents related to land sales in central Texas, particularly Bosque and McLennan counties. (Archives class)
    • Olive McGehee Denson Papers, 1916-1957, undated: The bulk of the Denson papers are scrapbooks about Texas and church history. There are also photographs from Independence, Texas. (Archives class)
    • James M. Kendrick Jr. Papers, 1922-1945: Kendrick’s papers include various items of correspondence between family and friends of Kendrick, as well as some financial and legal documents. There is a large number of literary productions, comprised of an assortment of documents and Kendrick’s own diaries. Also present are several photographs and artifacts pertaining to his time at Baylor University. (Archives class)
    • Harry Raymond Morse Jr. Collection, 2000: This collection consists of four cassette tapes containing oral history interviews related to the Waco Tornado of May 11, 1953.
Southwest Conference meeting minutes, April 24, 1922 (page 1)
These minutes are from the papers of Henry Trantham, who served as Baylor University faculty representative to the Southwest Athletic Conference from 1916 to 1923, and from 1925 to 1941. Trantham was the president of the conference from 1918 to 1919, and from 1938 to 1941, and in that position he assisted in the establishment of the Cotton Bowl Association.
  • Simons-Stoner-Rose Family Papers, 1828-1977, undated: The Simons-Stoner-Rose Family Papers are comprised of original correspondence, legal and financial documents, literary productions, military records, printed materials, family histories, and photographs pertaining to five families (including Wells, Simons, Kay, Stoner, and Rose) in Texas from its pre-republic days to the late twentieth century. (Archives class)
  • Henry Trantham Papers, 1894-1962, undated: Trantham’s papers consist of correspondence, administrative and academic materials, and other loose materials related to Baylor University and the Greek and Classics Departments, the Southwest Athletic Conference, and the Rhodes Scholarship program. (Archives class)
  • Charles Wellborn Papers, 1945-2009: This archives contains sermons and other materials primarily from Wellborn’s time as pastor of Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas.

Research Ready: December 2012

"Dialogue on Race Relations," Waco Community Race Relations Coalition flyer
The Community Race Relations Coalition (CRRC) began as a series of grassroots dialogues on race in Waco. The First Anniversary Dialogue was held in 2000.

Each month, we post a processing update to notify our readers about the latest collections that have finding aids online and are primed for research. This month we have a few special entries from the Archival Collections and Museums class that worked on an archival processing project with us here at The Texas Collection. (You’ll learn more about that in a guest post by a student in January.) We’re not quite done proofreading all of the students’ finding aids, so there will be a few more finding aids coming from that group. Here’s the scoop for December:

  • BU Records: Adelphian Theological Society, 1889-1916: The Adelphian Theological Society was formed in 1889 by Baylor ministerial students. The records group contains correspondence, financial records, legal documents, and ledgers that reflect how the Society operated. (Archives class)
  • Roberta Lucille Malone Bailey Papers, 1936, undated: This small collection contains two items: a letter written by Pat Neff to William and Ada May congratulating them on 50 years of marriage and a photocopy of a journal entry citing this letter.
  • Raymond E. Biles Collection, 1954-1973: The Biles Collection consists primarily of newspaper clippings covering the educational desegregation era in Texas from 1956-1973. Also included is correspondence to Mr. Biles and other materials relating to his role as an adviser to the Waco Citizen’s Advisory Committee, which was tasked with reviewing local desegregation policies. (Archives class)
  • [Waco] Calvary Baptist Church Records, 1929-1955, undated: Calvary’s church records consist of literary documents created by church members including church publications and a directory. (Archives class)
  • [Waco] Caritas Records, 1965-1988: The [Waco] Caritas Records represents organizational records from the Caritas Catholic charity located in Waco, Texas. The records follow the meetings, programs, and public image of Caritas from its creation in the 1960s through its continued service in the 1980s. (Archives class)
  • James Milton Carroll Papers, 1898-1929: Centered around Carroll’s writings, these documents include manuscripts, proof sheets, sermons, tracts, and other writings.  (Archives class)
  • [Waco] Community Race Relations Coalition Records, 1998-2011: The Waco Community Race Relations Coalition Records consist of correspondence, legal and financial documents, literary productions, photographs, and media documenting the coalition’s efforts to promote racial awareness in the community of Waco, Texas.
  • [Waco] First Baptist Church Collection, 1892-1978, undated: The First Baptist Church of Waco was established on 1851 May 31 by four charter members along with Noah T. Byars, who became their first pastor on June 1. Their records consist of correspondence, literary documents, and financial records. (Archives class)
  • Historic Waco Foundation Records, 1954-2005: The Historic Waco Foundation is a nonprofit institution that was created in 1967 after the merger of three Waco
    foundations: the Heritage Society of Waco, the Society of Historic Preservation, and the Duncan Foundation. These documents consist of correspondence, financial documents, legal documents, literary papers, and oversized materials. (Archives class)
  • Huston-Tillotson University Records, 1930-1935: The Huston-Tillotson University Records consist of correspondence and financial documents from Tillotson College as University President Mary Elizabeth Branch tried to keep the college open during the Great Depression.
  • BU Records: Philomathesian Literary Society, 1859-1951: Established in 1851 while Baylor University was located in Independence, Texas, the Philomathesian Literary Society was the first literary society to be established in Texas. The records include roll books, minutes books, general business records, library records, their constitution, contest records, and records on their fight with the Erisophian Literary Society from 1912-1913. (Archives class)
  • Quanah, Seymour, Dublin, and Rockport Railroad Records. 1836 (copy)-
    1922, undated: The Quanah, Seymour, Dublin and Rockport Railroad Records consist of correspondence, legal documents, financial documents, field notes and maps
    produced by the railroad company and associated small companies in South
    Texas. (Archives class)
Philomathesian vs. Erisophian debate letter, January 10, 1913
In this letter from J.W. Thomas to R.E. Dudley, Thomas refers to recent “squabbles” between the Philomathesian and Erisophian Literary Societies at Baylor. The question of who should debate first at the 1913 match apparently caused much controversy…and occasional name-calling.

Research Ready: July 2012

A.J. Armstrong, Adventure, Andrew Joseph Armstrong, Annexation Temperance Society, Archives, Armstrong Browning Library, Baptist history, Baptist missions, Baylor at Independence, Baylor English department, Baylor University, Ben Milam, Bosque John McLennan, Brazos County, Brenham Texas, Bryan Texas, Cartoonists, Charles Chaplin, Cherokee, Chippewa, church history, Civil War, Clark Herring, Confederate States of America, Daughters of the American Revolution, Delaware Indians, Edward Rotan, Edwin James, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gordon Bradley chapter DAR, First Baptist Church Austin Texas, First Baptist Church Brenham Texas, First National Bank Waco, First Presbyterian Church Waco, Francisco Banda, frontier and pioneer life, Galveston College, genealogy, Henry Downs chapter DAR, Historic Waco, Indian captivities, Indians of North America, John Gill Pratt, John Kern Strecker, Jotham Meeker, Kate Harrison Friend, Kate Sturm McCall Rotan, Lucy Exall Chaplin, Lykins Johnston, Mary Maxwell Armstrong, McLennan County, Medicine, Medina County, Milam Park, Milam's Colony, missionaries, missions, Moses Merrill, National Association of Railway Surgeons, National Catholic News Service, Neil McLennan, Noname Club, Oakwood Cemetery, Ojibwa, Oto, Ottawa, Pat Neff, Potawatomi, Railroads, Reconstruction, Religious journalism, Republic of Texas, Research Ready, Richard Pryor, Robert Browning, Robert Hodges Jr., Roger Conger, Roy Crane, Royston Crane, Sam Houston, Santa Anna, Shawnee, Sidebars: Reflections by a Missionary Journalist in New York, Snyder Texas, Tennessee history, Texas Federation of Women's Clubs, Texas land grants, Tracy Early, United Methodist Church, Waco, Waco Humane Society, Washington County Texas, William Carey Crane, William Maury Darst, William Shakespeare, Women social reformers, Woodmen of the World--Texas, World Church Council, Wright's Brigade, Zoology

Each month, we post a processing update to notify our readers about the latest collections that have finding aids online and are primed for research. Here’s the scoop for July:

William Butler Yeats and William Howard Taft speak at Baylor Diamond Jubilee, 1920
A.J. Armstrong secured many renowned authors, politicians, explorers, and more, to visit Baylor. (See blogs.baylor.edu/armstrongbrowning to read more.) The Armstrong papers document some of his efforts to bring these speakers to Waco, among his many other activities.
    • Andrew Joseph (A.J.) Armstrong papers: The Andrew Joseph Armstrong papers consist of correspondence, literary productions, and other materials collected during his tenure as Chairman of the English Department at Baylor University. His wife Mary’s genealogical records comprise the final series of the collection.
    • Francisco Banda papers: Papers regarding Francisco Banda in relation to a 1922 conflict with his landlord, Clark Herring. Texas governor Pat Neff was asked to intercede.
    • Baptist Missionary Publications: Indians of North America collection: This collection contains religious and educational publications in American Indian languages, most of which were translated and printed by Baptist missionaries in the Midwest.
    • Bryan First United Methodist Church records: The Bryan First Methodist Church Records, 1903-06, consists of documents created by members of Bryan First Methodist Church (now First United Methodist Church of Bryan). The papers contain meeting minutes, financial ledgers, and attendance records.
    • Charles and Lucy Exall Chaplin papers: The Charles and Lucy Exall Chaplin papers contain literary scrapbooks, and photographs pertaining to the Chaplin and Exall families in Texas. The papers document the lives of important Baptist leaders in Texas during Reconstruction, and the family’s service at several important churches around the state.
    • Charles "Charlie" Exall, 1861-1862
      The Chaplin papers contain many photographs of family members around the time of the American Civil War, including this one of Charles Exall in 1861-1862.
    • Royston C. Crane collection: The Royston C. Crane collection contains personal and family correspondence, financial documents, legal documents, literary productions, and photographic materials belonging to Royston C. Crane, the son of former Baylor University President William Carey Crane.
    • William Maury Darst papers: The William Maury Darst papers consist of manuscripts collected from 1894-1973. These papers contain literary productions and photographic materials, with essays, notes, slides, and other printed materials, reflecting his historical research interests and medical work in Texas.
    • Daughters of the American Revolution: Elizabeth Gordon Bradley Chapter records: The [Waco] Daughters of the American Revolution: Elizabeth Gordon Bradley Chapter Collection contains materials concerning the organization’s activities in the McLennan County area. These include minutes, scrapbooks, video tapes, yearbooks, programs, clippings, handbooks, and directories.
    • Tracy Early collection: The Tracy Early collection contains professional and personal materials pertaining to newspaper and magazine articles written by Early, including correspondence, diaries, photographs, school work, books, and sermons.
    • William Carey Crane's home in Independence, Texas, 1912
      A reunion of friends in Independence, Texas. The Royston C. Crane papers include a good deal of genealogical work on the extended Crane family and historical research on Baylor's early days.
    • Kate Harrison Friend papers: The Kate Harrison Friend Papers consists of correspondence, literary manuscripts, scrapbooks, and photographs. The majority of the letters were to Kate Harrison Friend, philanthropist of Waco.
    • McLennan Family collection: The McLennan Family Collection consists of correspondence, legal, financial, literary, and photographic materials. This collection focuses on Neil McLennan, namesake of McLennan County.
    • Ben Milam papers: One letter from Ben Milam to Richard Pryor regarding the settling of Texas.
    • Rotan (Edward and Kate Sturm McCall) papers: The Rotan Papers contain literary productions, correspondence, photographs, clippings, and a ledger book. Edward served in the Civil War, then became a business leader in the Waco community as president of First National Bank, among other positions. Kate was very active in various civic organizations and helped establish Waco’s first public library.
    • John Kern Strecker papers: The John Kern Strecker Papers consist of correspondence, financial documents, literary productions, and a photograph. Strecker was curator of Baylor’s museum, which was named the Strecker Museum in his honor.

    You can see how wide and varied The Texas Collection’s holdings are! These records—and the finding aids we have online—are just a small representation of the thousands of collections we preserve for future researchers. We’re working hard to make our collections more visible and hope that one of them will spark your interest!

Research Ready: June 2012

Each month, we post a processing update to notify our readers about the latest collections that have finding aids online and are primed for research. Here’s the scoop for June:

Lane-JohnsonResidence-Waco
Roy Lane was one of the most famous architects to have ever resided in the Waco area. The Roy E. Lane Collection contains various sketches and photographs of local houses that Lane designed.
    • William Cowper Brann Collection: The William Cowper Brann Collection contains secondary materials and a few primary sources detailing the career and death of influential journalist William C. Brann, editor of The Iconoclast.
    • Robert F. Darden, Jr. Collection: The Robert Darden, Jr. Collection contains correspondence, literary productions, and photographic materials belonging to Darden, a veteran of the Korean War and a resident of Texas.
    • De La Vega Land Grant Papers: This collection includes original correspondence, court documents, financial receipts, and newspaper clippings pertaining to the De la Vega Land Grant and Roger Conger’s research on the land grant.
    • Roy Ellsworth Lane Collection: The Roy Ellsworth Lane Collections consists of correspondence, literary productions, photographs, and blueprints highlighting Lane’s impressive career as an architect in the central Texas region.
Luper-BrazilMission-program
The Lupers were a Baptist missionary family who served in Portugal and Brazil during the 20th century. This program is indicative of their conscientious efforts to spread the gospel to the rural regions of Brazil.
  • Luper Family Papers: The Luper Family Papers are comprised of correspondence, literary productions, and other materials pertaining to a missionary couple and their experiences during the mid-1900s in Portugal and Brazil.
  • Greaver Lewis Miller Collection: The Greaver Lewis Miller Collection contains materials from an American pilot who trained at nearby Rich Field in Waco, Texas, during World War I. Materials include photographs, certificates, and artifacts from Miller’s time in the Army.

You can see how wide and varied The Texas Collection’s holdings are! These records—and the finding aids we have online—are just a small representation of the thousands of collections we preserve for future researchers. We’re working hard to make our collections more visible and hope that one of them will spark your interest!